Infrastructural Citizenship

15 Sep

These guys can outsource a good-paying job to Taipei with the push of a button, and seem to care less how it impacts a family living in the Harbor area” (Miles 2012). These are the words of ILWU1 Vice-President Ray Familathe presented in a statement regarding the strike and consequently the shut-down of more than half of the Los Angeles (L.A.) Port terminals in the beginning of December 2012 (Reid and Gorman 2012). Following an analysis of the striking port workers’ degraded part in the port infrastructure, which triggered the strike in the first place, I would like to argue that, instead of being treated as mere interchangeable parts of the port infrastructure, the workers demanded to be treated as foundational parts. I argue that when the port workers closed down the port in December 2012, they proved their fundamental worth for the functionality of the port, and it became clear that L.A. Port as an infrastructure is in fact a contested arena of politics. Thus did the workers demand rights worthy of their actual foundational part in the control of the port infrastructure.

As a theoretical framework for my essay, I suggest the term infrastructural citizenship in order to explain that the port infrastructure is a political space where the port workers demand rights in accordance with their actual controlling part in the infrastructure. By suggesting this term, I wish to argue that the sociological study of infrastructure inform the debate on citizenship, and that the sociological study of citizenship inform the debate on infrastructure. Generally there is a blind-spot in public discourse regarding the role of infrastructure when it comes to discussing contemporary political agency. Though the social sciences have taken up the analysis of infrastructure, its focus is mainly on materiality and how humans and non-humans interact and become an emergent unity2. Though this is an important point to make, it can be argued that this perspective is granting too big of a leverage to materiality compared to the actual power of humans’ agency. Instead, I wish to show that humans in fact provide the very foundation for a infrastructure like an industrial port. When the L.A. Port broke down due to the strike in December 2012, it became evident that the infrastructure depend more on the workers than the other way around. Urban scholar Stephen Graham argue in his text When Infrastructures Fail that when infrastructure is disrupted, it shows its hidden features because, all of a sudden, it becomes visible and everything but banal (Graham 2009). In fact, an infrastructure breakdown makes the hidden politics of the infrastructure in question emerge. Following this perspective on disrupted infrastructures, I argue that the shutdown of the L.A. Port proved the political character of the port in general, and in particular the workers’ political part in the infrastructure.

In combination with infrastructure, I wish to argue that citizenship plays an important role. Citizenship is generally perceived in quite an abstract manner: citizenship is something that is performed in the public sphere via communication with other citizens (Arendt 1998; Habermas 1979). Though it is acknowledged that citizenship is also related to physical spaces, these spaces of citizenship are often limited to be only certain political ‘agora’-like spaces. I argue that this perspective fails to incorporate infrastructure as a different, but just as important, space for citizenship. James Holston suggests the term urban citizenship (Holston 2009), which is a citizenship that is politically claimed and spatially appropriated as a response to a feeling of a degradation in urban spaces. I suggest a similar perspective on citizenship in relation to infrastructure, where citizenship is not only a question of participating in the political public sphere in the city close to one’s home, it is also a question of participation in the infrastructure in which you reside. Many people live great deals of their everyday lives in a variety of different infrastructures – e.g. the industrial port workers in the ports. The port is not just a simple working place, it is an important infrastructure that plays a significant role in the workers’ lives. The infrastructure provides a living for the workers, and the workers maintain the functionality of the infrastructure. The demand for an infrastructural citizenship is thereby more than a demand for a simple job in the infrastructure, it is a demand for objective rights worthy of infrastructural citizens who help control the infrastructure. Hence, the port constitutes a political space of active citizenship.

The combination of infrastructure and citizenship, leads me to suggest the term infrastructural citizenship as a theoretical framework for my analysis of the port workers’ strike in the beginning of December 2012. The term will cast light on the hidden politics of participation in the port infrastructure.


The port workers decided to go on strike, and thereby shut down the busiest industrial port on the North American continent for about a week. They did so mainly in order to claim job security as a response to fears of job-outsourcing. In my analysis of the events that led to the shut down of the majority of the port, I wish to explain how the striking workers reacted to a feeling of being treated as mere interchangeable parts of an infrastructure which led to the strike. I argue that by going on the strike that shut down the majority of the port, the workers successfully demonstrated that they are indeed parts of the very foundation of the port as an infrastructure, and that they cannot be exchanged simply “with the push of a button” (Miles 2012).

Though fundamental to the well-being of the port, the port workers felt as mere interchangeable and devalued parts, because they lacked the basic rights which they felt entitled to. In other words, the workers felt that their position in the infrastructure was degraded, and thereby incompatible with their own experience of their foundational part in the port. The feeling of devaluation and degradation stems from the fact that the workers feared for their future jobs in the infrastructure. In December about 500 striking port clerks had been without a contract for more than two years, which meant a constant feeling of uncertainty regarding the future prospects of working in the port. This eventually forced the port clerks to go on strike with a demand for job contracts as well as a general demand for job security. Because of solidarity, and because of wide-spanning fears of an overarching outsourcing of American port jobs in general, the port clerks were joined by some 10.000 members of the ILWU who refused to cross the picket line set up by the clerks, thereby adding a good deal of leverage to the negotiation abilities of the port clerks (Reid and Gorman 2012).

The port workers’ dissatisfaction with their pre-strike position in the port infrastructure is expressed in quotes like the following: “these are powerful multi-national corporations who aren’t respecting the local communities” (Miles 2012); “These guys can outsource a good-paying job to Taipei with the push of a button, and seem to care less how it impacts a family living in the Harbor area” (ibid.); and “It’s important to us to keep those jobs here in the United States. We’re fighting against corporate greed” (Rogers 2012). The quotes show the port workers’ negative sentiments towards their degraded position in the infrastructure. When looking at the quotes more closely, the port workers, by referring to their local communities as well as their families in relation to the infrastructure, make it clear that they reside and make a living in the infrastructure which is thereby an important everyday-space in their lives. Also, by referring to the difference between themselves as workers and the ‘greedy’ multi-national corporations, they express a feeling of a differentiation of rights among themselves and the multi-national corporations who employ them. This put together suggests that the port workers consider the port infrastructure an important political space in their everyday-lives. And due to the differentiation of rights among themselves and “these guys”, the port workers demand equal citizenship rights.


Due to the fact that the infrastructure is an important space in the workers’ everyday realm, it is also a space where the workers demand rights, and since rights refer to what is considered a legal or moral entitlement3, the infrastructure becomes a space for everyday-battles for, and creations of, an infrastructural citizenship in accordance with the workers’ perception of the legal and moral entitlements. In this light, the port workers’ strike in December was a struggle for the right to have an everyday working life in the port worthy of a port worker’s dignity. This is similar to Holston’s findings regarding urban citizenship, which is constructed around everyday-lives in the urban (Holston 2009, 246–247). Both in the urban and in the infrastructure, one builds his or her life in relation to residence and work, which then become important everyday-spaces.

In addition to the fact that the port is an important space in the workers’ everyday lives, it is also a space of an obvious differentiation of rights. In other words: within the infrastructure, different treatment is distributed to different parts of the infrastructure. There is a fundamental practical difference between the port workers and their employers, which is that the employers enjoy job security while the workers do not. This situation is similar to what Holston calls a situation of “differentiated citizenship” where most rights are a “privilege of particular social categories” (ibid., 255). Similarly is job security a privilege of the ones who can, “with the push of a button” (Miles 2012), outsource other categories of employees. Basically, this makes the workers feel as mere interchangeable parts of an infrastructure – almost as if they are just another container that can be moved around with a simple push of a button. According to Holston it is exactly in this kind of “circumstances of degradation” (Holston 2009, 247) that notions of right and wrong – morally and legally – emerge.

The gradation of rights within the infrastructure, is, with the use of Holston’s terminology, an “entrenched regime of (…) citizenship” which refers to an incompatibility between a person’s “sense of subjective” citizenship and the “objective source of right in citizenship” (ibid., 252). In other words, it is a public realm which holds a differentiated infrastructural citizenship. This was the pre-strike circumstances for the port workers who went on strike, after having worked in an infrastructural public realm constituted by a differentiated citizenship. And by doing so, they demonstrated their actual fundamental part in the infrastructure. The majority of the port was shut down for about a week because the workers chose to do so, which proves that the workers are in fact among the foundational parts of the port infrastructure. In other words, the workers showed that they are not mere interchangeable parts of a major machinery, instead they showed that they also control the infrastructure. According to urban scholar Stephen Graham (2009), infrastructure shows its true face and worth when it breaks down. When infrastructure functions, one does not notice it, it can even seem banal. But when infrastructures are disrupted, an “unblackboxing” (Graham 2009, 18) takes place, and the hidden infrastructural politics emerge and become very explicit. So when the port workers closed down the port in December 2012, they proved their fundamental worth, and it became clear that L.A. Port as an infrastructure is in fact a contested arena of politics, i.e. a space of active infrastructural citizenship.


The incompatibility between the differentiated citizenship within the infrastructure, and the workers’ subjective notion of an infrastructural citizenship, made the port workers claim their political rights by striking and thereby attempting to physically appropriate the port. Since the workers’ interests derive from their own experiences and political ideas rather than from their employer’s, they insist on participating in the formulation of rights within the infrastructure. Hence the port workers’ actual purpose with the strike: to make sure that their infrastructural citizenship is based on their own everyday life experiences as the basic source of substantive rights (Holston 2009, 258). The port workers felt competent to demand objective rights in accordance with their subjective notion of rights, and they feel competent to participate in the control of the port, which is why they spatially appropriated the infrastructure in order to claim their political rights to do so. From this perspective the strike can be seen as a physical appropriation which helped establish a new order of citizenship in the infrastructure (ibid., 246). Citizenship then, is not something that is only practiced in e.g. public spaces in the city. In fact, the infrastructure can be an space for active citizenship, which was proven by the port workers when they went on a strike due to the differentiation of rights within the infrastructure. By striking, the workers disrupted the infrastructure and proved that they are in fact fundamental parts of the infrastructure, in the sense that they keep it functioning. Hence, an infrastructure is not necessarily just a banal structure or a simple place of work, it can in fact be an important space for politics and active citizenship.


1International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU).

2Assemblage-theory: to form assemblages is to form emergent unities that respect the heterogeneity of the different parts (like a bee and a flower becoming a unit). In an urban context, this entails a focus on both the human and non-human actors in the city (Bennett 2005; McFarlane 2011).

3See the Wiktionary-entry on ‘right’:


Arendt, Hannah. 1998. The human condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Bennett, Jane. 2005. “The Agency of Assemblages and the North American Blackout.” Public Culture 17 (3) (September 21): 445–466. doi:10.1215/08992363-17-3-445.

Graham, Stephen. 2009. Disrupted Cities: When Infrastructure Fails. Taylor & Francis.

Habermas, Jürgen. 1979. “Aspects of the Rationality of Action.” In Rationality to-day = La rationalité aujourd’hui, ed. Hans-Georg Gadamer and Théodore F Geraets. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press.

Holston, James. 2009. “Insurgent Citizenship in an Era of Global Urban Peripheries.” City & Society 21 (2): 245–267. doi:10.1111/j.1548-744X.2009.01024.x.

McFarlane, Colin. 2011. “Assemblage and Critical Urbanism.” City 15 (2): 204–224. doi:10.1080/13604813.2011.568715.

Miles, Kathleen. 2012. “Strike Shuts Down Port Of LA Terminal: 70 Clerical Workers Walk Off The Job Over Outsourcing.” Huffington Post, November 28.

Reid, Tim, and Steve Gorman. 2012. “Los Angeles Port Strike Triggers Fears, Lobbying by Businesses.” Reuters, December 2.

Rogers, John. 2012. “LA, Long Beach Port Strike Enters Second Week, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa Demands Nonstop Meetings.” Huffington Post, December 3.


One Response to “Infrastructural Citizenship”

  1. stephan September 24, 2013 at 2:23 pm #

    Hey Rune!
    Really nice that you posted you essay!
    All the best!

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